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Heads up – Embassy 18 – July/August 2009

Saving paradise

The Maldives is a small state undergoing big changes. The archipelago now holds the distinction as the world’s youngest multi-party democracy – and the new High Commissioner for the Maldives, Dr Farahanaz Faizal, was one of the activists behind that change.

Faizal got her first taste of freedom when she travelled from the highly restrictive society of the Maldives to study in Britain. Coming from a country were political parties were banned, political protest was not condoned and the press was tightly controlled, she and a group of Maldivian students – which included the newly-elected President, Mohamed Nasheed – discovered political activism in the UK.

She recalls joining her first protest against apartheid in 1989 outside South Africa House: “We drew a lot of inspiration from the anti-apartheid movement. We thought if South Africa can become a democracy, so can we. Every time our leader got arrested or people were being tortured I took a lot of inspiration from the South African experience.”

It took three dark decades to achieve that goal, at great personal sacrifice for many dissidents. Faizal, herself, joined the exiled Maldivian Democratic Party in the UK in 2006 and could not return home for fear of being arrested. Her task was to alert human rights groups in the UK and lobby the British parliament to condemn the actions of the regime and to secure the release of prisoners of conscience.

Eventually a new constitution paved the way for the first multi-party elections in which the opposition MDP won. The High Commissioner was the election coordinator of the MDP in the UK, where she says her party won 75% of the vote.

Transforming from a liberation movement into a governing party might take some getting used to, but she doesn’t anticipate too many teething problems. “Our democracy is home-grown,” she says, adding: “We can’t waste time – we have so much to do in the next five years because we have to deliver on our promises. My High Commission is very small but we have to work non-stop.”

Top of her full in-tray is climate change. Rising sea levels, frequent violent storms and huge tidal sea surges could wipe the islands off the map, creating a nation of climate refugees, she warns.

She will be working hard over the next few months towards a successful Copenhagen Summit. “We hardly contribute anything to the problem yet if the sea level rises we are doomed. We need to make Copenhagen a success; failure is not an option,” she says.

With the Obama Administration taking the problem seriously, the High Commissioner believes momentum for a meaningful agreement is building. And while she has sympathy for those emerging economies who are reluctant to put on the brakes on their development, she says they too should see climate change as an economic opportunity.

“The key is not just reducing carbon emissions but also investing in renewable technologies which will create jobs,” she says.

Using a mix of solar, wind and wave energy, The Maldives aims to become the world’s first carbon neutral country.

“We need investment and expertise,” says Faizal, who will be working to attract British investors in the renewable energy sector.

British health workers and graduates are welcome too, as part of the International Volunteer Programme, where volunteers visit the island for six months to a year to teach their subject and English. The programme is intended to alleviate shortages in teachers and doctors especially on some of the more remote islands.

Investment and poverty reduction is a priority, especially for those that were displaced by the Asian Tsunami. “Unfortunately the donor money was channelled to the wrong hands under the previous regime so we still have people living in temporary shelters,” says Faizal.

Allowing foreigners free access across the archipelago marks a radical shift from the previous regime, which restricted access for fear of influencing the local Muslim population.

Faizal now classifies The Maldives as a “liberal Muslim democracy” but admits that there is a small extremist Islamic element which evolved in protest against the previous regime. “We need to keep an eye on it, but we feel it is manageable, particularly if we bring the group into the political mainstream and allow them freedom of expression − and freedom after expression.”

The new Government has a packed legislative programme to fully introduce human rights into the justice system and redressing the wrongs of the past will also have to take place. “We might follow the South African model and set up a truth and reconciliation commission. We don’t want a witch hunt but we do need to record what happened and seek closure.”

An accomplished published poet, the High Commimssioner used to vent her frustrations with her poetry during the struggle. Now, as she contemplates the big responsibility placed on her petite shoulders, she smiles: “My family and poetry nourish me; I draw my strength from them.”

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HE Dr Farahanaz Faizal

“We hardly contribute anything to climate chage yet if the sea level rises we are doomed. We need to make Copenhagen a success; failure is not an option”

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